Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Death Ends a Life, Not a Friendship

Delle's was grey & mine was black
It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I have “heard” from my friend, Delle, many times since she died in 2006.

The time that has passed since she died is actually longer than the time we knew each other. But I still find myself talking about her in the present tense.

I’m not the only person who feels that way. It’s going on seven years since she died, and I still hear her friends say “I think about her every day.” She had that kind of effect on people.

Maybe you have a friend who changed your life, and maybe they’re dead. Does that mean your friendship is over? I’ve learned in many ways that the answer is “no.”

As I struggled with writing the book I promised her I’d write, I could hear her voice when I first told her my idea, “Just do it.”

When I worry about money I can hear her sigh, “If you’d write the damn book, you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”

On my desk is a postcard that Delle sent me from Paris. It shows the Eiffel Tower at three different times of day. It’s propped up, but now and then it flops over for no apparent reason. That’s when I know she’s making her presence known.

Other times have been more dramatic: light shining through a stained glass window in church at an important moment; a candle flame shooting up without warning. A couple times a gun-metal grey PT Cruiser (like Delle’s) has pulled up next to me, and when I look over, it’s a beautiful African-American woman who looks like her in the driver’s seat.

Not long ago, I was in our favorite coffee house, Metropolis. My first book was out and the second was close to being released. I was talking about them to two women who are also regulars there. Suddenly a woman said “excuse me” and slipped past where I was standing. When I looked up, she smiled at me: she looked just like Delle. I hope I didn’t look like the deer in the headlights. A few minutes later I checked, but she was nowhere to be seen. I knew it wasn’t her, but still…

I realize that in a different time, say, the Middle Ages, I might be burned at the stake for admitting any of this. But as I’ve talked to people around the country – around the world, actually – about their friends, I’ve learned that these kinds of things are very common.

Many people admit to talking to friends who have died, feeling their presence, hearing their voices. They talk about the impact that person had on them, often, inspiring them to change their lives for the better.

So, if you’ve had experiences similar to these, you can breathe easier now. You’re not crazy and you’re definitely not alone. There are a lot of us out here, keeping the friendship going, long after our friend has died.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

“Now You’re a Soldier”

The moment came near the end of Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington. The HBO documentary, produced by his friend and fellow war correspondent Sebastian Junger, is a fascinating look into the world of embedded journalists. It’s all too obvious why dozens are killed every year.

After Hetherington’s death in April, 2011, Junger hears from one of the soldiers they lived with for 13 months in Afghanistan. The soldier tells him that he and Hetherington were accepted by the platoon, thought of (almost) as one of them. But, hoping he didn’t sound callous, the soldier told Junger that because he’d lost his friend, “now you’re a soldier.”

The next book in the Friend Grief series is about the military. Friend Grief and Community: Band of Friends. If community sounds like an odd word to describe war, it’s not.

The bond between soldiers on the front lines creates a world separate from that outside of the war zone. It creates an alternate universe, so different because of the inherent dangers. But it also creates a real community, where battle buddies eat, sleep, fight, laugh, cry and sometimes die together. It’s why they refer to each other as “brothers”. Calling each other “friend” doesn’t seem strong enough.

They share an experience that can’t really be explained to anyone not there, though I’ll do my best in the book. I expect to include military women as well, though their experience – being technically not “combat” – is different. Their grief is every bit as profound, although most do not watch their friends die.

Complicating this kind of grief is the reality of their situation. In the midst of battle, in a war zone, they have little if any opportunity to grieve their friends. Those feelings must be pushed aside for self-preservation and the good of the unit.

But eventually, often with tragic results, that grief will rise up again. Grief and guilt can fuel depression, addictions and even suicide.

Junger himself was searching for answers, to make sense of his friend’s death. He began interviewing people who were with Hetherington when he died. From those interviews grew this amazing documentary. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it.

You’ll have a new appreciation of the people who put their lives on the line every day to protect us, and the journalists who tell their stories.

Learn more here.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Watching Your Best Friend Die

I wasn’t going to write about Hadiya Pendleton.

I live in Chicago and frankly, there are too damn many Hadiya Pendletons: young people murdered for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sunday’s Chicago Tribune carried a front page article about Hadiya’s closest girlfriends. They’re typical kids, teenagers, whose lives will never be the same: both for their close friendships with Hadiya and the horrible death they witnessed.

The shots detonate like firecrackers – boom boom boom boom boom – and the friends, a dozen of them altogether, run.

The girl named Danetria does not run well. She is out of breath, struggling to keep up, when, ahead of her, she sees one of her friends fall, and she thinks about how slowly her friend collapsed, and how gracefully, and how strange this all is, like a dream.

The girl named Kyra is still running. From behind her she hears someone shout "Hadiya’s been shot!”

The causes of the violence plaguing Chicago are many and complex: easy availability of guns from Indiana, poverty, high unemployment, drugs, gangs, lack of parental support, under-performing schools, blah, blah, blah. They’re all connected. But Hadiya’s murder is proof that even when parents do everything right, they can’t protect their children from the world around them.

In the Tribune’s examination of the effects of Hadiya’s death on her friends, one paragraph stood out for me. It was the initial police statement, made a few hours after the shooting:

“Preliminary information indicates that most of the members of the group were gang members. None of the group stuck around and rendered aid or waited for the police. By all indications the female victim was an unintended target.”

Only the last sentence was true.

The police officer making the statement didn’t know that Klyn squeezed Hadiya’s hand or Danetria held her head in her lap until the police and ambulance arrived; didn’t know that Kyra had run to borrow a cellphone to call 911. Now we know, but the damage is done.

No one – at 15 – should watch their best friend die.

No one – at 15 – should feel guilty for not being able to save their friend’s life.

No one – at 15 – should struggle just to get through the day, consumed with “what if’s”.

No one – at 15 – should have nightmares about seeing their best friend lying in a casket.

No one – at 15 – should avoid going to the park, because that’s where their best friend was murdered.

No one – at 15 – should wish they’d had the chance to say “I’m sorry.”

But they do.

Today is – by my calculations – the 14th Tuesday since Hadiya was gunned down. The perpetrators are in jail. Her friends are trying to move on, knowing only one thing for sure: their lives will be forever changed because of Hadiya. Life goes on, whether you want it to or not.

I encourage you to read the story below. Whatever your beliefs are on violence, guns, gangs or teenagers, I guarantee this will give you something to think about.

As it should.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

AIDS: Everything Old is New Again

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

 There is perhaps no more perfect quote to describe the current state of the AIDS epidemic. A close second would be “out of sight, out of mind.”

Last week I found myself at a fundraiser for the West Hollywood Public Library Foundation and the proposed AIDS memorial. It was a benefit screening of How to Survive A Plague, the Academy-Award nominated and much-honored 2012 documentary about ACT UP New York and the AIDS epidemic.

I spent time with Jim Eigo, a founder of ACT UP NY, who I’d met at their meeting in New York earlier in the month. He participated in a panel discussion that followed the film.

What made me sad – and angry – was that the second book in my series (Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends) is so relevant today. When I started writing it, I thought it would be more of a reflection of my time working in the AIDS community in Chicago in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Boy, was I wrong.

Between the ACT UP meeting and the panel discussion, I felt like I was in a time warp. What year is this, really, when we’re talking about the rising number of infections in young gay men? What year is this, really, when we’re talking about the critical need to lobby our legislators, at all levels of government? What year is this, really, when we’re talking about the threat of AIDS at all?

That time warp is why I’m angry all over again. There are differences, big differences between the early 1980’s and now. We didn’t know what AIDS was (or what to call it), how it was transmitted, how to treat it. Now we know, but it’s still here, still a serious threat, no matter what you’ve been told.

Thanks to medical advances, people really do believe an AIDS diagnosis is no big deal – maybe even an advantage in certain situations. You still think only gay men are at risk? How about women over 50: “I can’t get pregnant, I don’t need a condom.” The truth is still what it was 30 years ago: everyone is at risk.

So while I’m gratified by the early positive reactions to my book, I’m also distressed by the fact that AIDS is still here, still without a cure, still without a vaccine. I’ve lost too many to this equal-opportunity virus; maybe you have, too.

I now find myself part of a second wave of activism, one which is sadly necessary. I hope you’ll join me, so you don’t find yourself grieving for a friend (or two or ten or a hundred) who died from AIDS.